Sunday, September 15, 2013

Horror and Sweetness in Alignment: You Should Still Be Reading Yeats

There's not much to say when you find perfection except to read it again. This is Yeats. You should know before you read that a "stare" is, as Yeats explains, "our West of Ireland name for a starling."

The Stare's Nest by My Window

 The bees build in the crevices
 Of loosening masonry, and there 
 The mother birds bring grubs and flies. 
 My wall is loosening; honey-bees, 
 Come build in the empty house of the stare. 

 We are closed in, and the key is turned 
 On our uncertainty; somewhere 
 A man is killed, or a house burned. 
 Yet no clear fact to be discerned: 
 Come build in the empty house of the stare. 

 A barricade of stone or of wood; 
 Some fourteen days of civil war: 
 Last night they trundled down the road 
 That dead young soldier in his blood: 
 Come build in the empty house of the stare. 

 We had fed the heart on fantasies, 
 The heart's grown brutal from the fare, 
 More substance in our enmities 
 Than in our love; O honey-bees, 
 Come build in the empty house of the stare. 

A. Norman Jeffares' marvelous, crazy-good old research standard, A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats features Yeats' remarks on this poem:
I was in my Galway house during the first moths of the civil war the railway bridges blown up and the roads blocked with stones and trees. For the first week there were no newspapers, no reliable news, we did not know who had won nor who had lost, and even after newspapers came, one never knew what was happening on the other side of the hill or of the line of trees. Ford cars passed the house from time to time with coffins standing upon end between the seats, and sometimes at night we heard an explosion, and once by day saw the smoke made by the burning of a great neighboring house. Men must have lived so through many tumultuous centuries. One felt an overmastering desire not to grow unhappy or embittered, not to loose all sense of the beauty of nature. A stare (our West of Ireland name for a starling) had built in a hole beside my window and I made these verses out of the feeling of the moment:
[and here, Yeats quotes first two stanzas] 
That is only the beginning but it runs on in the same mood. Presently a strange thing happened. I began to smell honey in places where honey could not be at the end of a stone passage or at some windy turn of the road, and it came always with certain thoughts. When I got back to Dublin I was with angry people who argued over everything or were eager to know the exact facts: in the midst of the mood that makes realistic drama.
Eamon Grennan describes the poem as "the final gesture away from history towards prayer, possibility...a moment where possibility and its sweetness intervenes on the horrors. Here is a poet trying to bring horror and sweetness into some sort of alignment so we can feel the truth of the condition rather than one or other side of it." 


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